Mud People

He once told the children about a people made from mud who lived upside down from the surface. They live just like we do, except their floor is our floor, and every step we make is a step for them. Their roof keeps the mud from welling up into their home, like our roof keeps the rain off our heads. They have pets and friends and parties and jobs, and in that way they are just like us, except they don’t know about the sun over our heads. They know about a giant glowing molten ball in the centre of their universe, but the stars and the planets for them are merely thicker clumps of stone in the pudding that is their daily existence.

He imagined them throwing out garbage, which for them would be made from bubbles of gas found in the rock and mud. They would bury it into the air above them, which is where all their waste would go, and volcanos, he told the kids, is where they dump the gases from cities. Earthquakes are moving day, and tsunamis just a by-product. When lava flows over the top of the ground they dig a bit deeper into their ground, which is our sky, and when there are mudslides the entire village celebrates.

The most puzzling aspect of their world is our intrusion into it. They sense the shafts of our mines, although they see them as caused by a natural force, like erosion in a stream, but they view the concrete pylons which support the biggest buildings as stalagmites, but graves are entirely different matter. When a person is buried, they know the ground is opened temporarily and then a vacant space is left in a bubble. Once the grave begins to fill with dirt they get a closer look at a mirror of themselves, and that’s where their philosophy departments begin their work. They have seen buried bodies for millennia, but only recently have they noticed the ritual of grave placement, and observed how each buried body takes longer to collapse into dirt than the ones from former years. They know nothing about embalming fluid—although the chemical signature would be recognizable—or hermitically-sealed coffins, mausoleums and tombs. They recognize the general outline of the bodies, and from there they guess at the dimensions of our world even if they can never enter it.

Some scientists have sent probes, and they have drilled into the open air. We experience that as volcanos and sink holes, and some say that even caves are their attempt to mine the air like we mine the rock. They are likely looking for gases which they can use in their manufacturing process, just like we seek for minerals. When an area becomes particularly porous, people would move away, claiming that underground streams were undermining the ground beneath their feet. This is the lower world poking its head into ours, and should never be mistaken as a natural phenomenon, like they mistake the mines and foundations of buildings.

The people who most understand those below are the miners. They hear strange sounds in the dark, as the pick of their doppelgänger pierces the air just as the above-ground pick thrusts through the rock. For many years blasting was outlawed in mining, and that came from the miners who were worried that they were destroying the world of another with their eagerness for metals. Now their voice is less important when it comes to mining strategies, although when some miners become trapped belowground they talk about shapes in the dark which emerge from the walls and which deliver water and solid limestone nodes. They throw rocks and tap to try for a form of communication, but other than a mythical game of soccer deep below ground by miners in Chile trapped for over two months, no one has recorded their statements.

Above ground we go about our daily business, as if we were walking on ants every day, but each of our actions has an effect.

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The Dunning–Kruger Effect

He didn’t mean to laugh, but he was easily overcome by the mangled sentences coming out of the man’s mouth. It was a kind of disorder, that he couldn’t control himself once someone was mangling their words so much as to create a new dialect from ordinary utterances.

Being a citizen in the city meant that he would be confronted with surety on a daily basis, and he was constantly reminded of the man who had put lemon juice on his face and attempted to rob a bank. He had thought his face was invisible, and that meant he would not be recognized, even though he was a regular customer and lived less than four blocks away. When the police had come knocking he was incredulous. How did you know it was me, he had asked. I wore the juice.

He liked to imagine that man’s life. He’d held down a job like anyone else, paid rent to the landlord and maintained a phone. Presumably he was knowledgeable enough to keep himself fed, although he might also have subsisted on fast food. Somehow, his logical skills were so weak that it never occurred to him, as he was walking down the street to the bank with his gun, that no one pulled away from him in horror. Did he wonder why no children pointed and stared, exclaimed loudly, or threatened to tell their parents? What about the police he had passed. Didn’t he wonder why they didn’t at first startle and then look at him more closely with greater incredulity until they pulled their gun and followed their policy of fire-first-ask-later when they didn’t understand what they were looking at? What about the people in his building? Shouldn’t they have reared against the walls of the hallway as he passed, and if they recognized him by his clothing or way of walking, wouldn’t they address him by his name? Why did no one in the bank jump for the alarm or refuse to serve him? So many shops make such refusals when someone is missing a shirt or shoes, what about him?

Didn’t he wonder why no one was aghast until he pulled out his gun and waved it around? Why did his lurid gesture at the security camera have to be accompanied by the expression on his face? Likely there were at least a hundred people who didn’t notice the unusual sight of a man walking out of his building, going down the street to the bank and entering it for business, even though the man didn’t have a face. What did he imagine they would see? That the back of his hood would appear? Or perhaps the wall and door behind him? Didn’t he think they would wonder why he’d never seen such a thing in the street before? Did he think he was the only one who thought to apply a child’s version of invisible ink to his face and that it would make him invisible? Likely every child older than four or five had thought of it, and those who immediately realized it was nonsense would never entertain the thought again. Those who did it, even if they were slightly dimmer, they would have checked their new lack of look in a mirror. How did he not think to check on what the invisible ink, the lemon juice when applied to paper and let dry, would do to his face?

Who wouldn’t run right to the mirror and watch as their face slowly faded into obscurity to be replaced by either the muscle and bone behind it, or the wall behind them? Somehow the would-be bank robber never thought to conduct even the simplest of tests of his method. Instead, he rubbed lemon juice on his face and ran right out of the house to the bank in order to earn his twenty years in prison. The sentence was more for not understanding the basic scientific method than the crime, for it was so ludicrous, so impossible, that no one could have believed it was real.

The conspiracy people no doubt thought they would hold that tidbit in mind, in case they needed to disappear. Like many of their most tenaciously-believed ideas, they would never think to submit it to the rigor of a test, but instead they would recognize in the bank robber a fellow conspirator in their struggles. He would understand, from the safety of his cell, how a man might see a fake world all around him, and have to strike out on his own, a gold miner washing rich gold from his tin plate while those around him found nothing of value. The bank robber would know what it was like to struggle to wire the garage, change the oil in the car, install a new door, and why his wife had left. The secret group which was controlling everything the conspiracist did not understand had obscured knowledge of lemon juice as well, so even if the bank robber was behind bars, he’d heard the same call.

As he went through his ordinary life, he was surrounded by those people. Those who cursed out local transit, who hoarded guns like the British were coming, and were suspicious of everything around them including their own family. They were as liable to rob a bank and shoot innocent bystanders, and even as he laughed at the nonsense they were spouting—from their religious pamphlet stand beside the bank or knee-deep in water at the beach—he was leery of letting their ignorance infect him. Like a virus, their ideas of how the world worked were as unfounded as they were a slippage from reasoning. He would be better off laying on his lawn or throwing rocks at his own feet. How do they manage, he often wondered. How could they understand enough to turn a key in a lock, or choke the highways while they drove, or draw a paycheque from someone who thought enough of them to pay for their efforts? It was a good question for anyone.

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When Plagiarism Goes Wrong

One of the ways that students plagiarize, at least when they take material from online and attempt to incorporate it into their papers, is to run a thesaurus function—such as the synonym option in MSword—on certain words. They seldom trouble themselves with prepositions and articles, but tend to change nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Although this can obscure the similarity between their changed text and the original, often it merely mangles the original so profoundly that the signifier becomes overly slippery. Before long, the sentence they have spent precious minutes working on becomes vague where it needs to be precise, and overly exacting where it should be general.

Recently, I had my students write their paper on some stories from Thomas King’s 2005 collection of short stories A Short History of Indians in Canada. Often that provides them with rich research material as well as evocative explorations of indigeneity in Canada, but occasionally the plagiarizing student reaches for the opportunity to transform slightly awkward sentences found online into masterpieces of bizarre obfuscation and inadvertent poetic juxtaposition.

In this case, they chose to take some lines from an Amazon review of Thomas King’s short story collection, but their modifications became much more interesting than their source. The sentence they chose makes a statement about King’s novel which may be a bit overwrought and awkward, but generally is comprehensible: “Other times, as in King’s groundbreaking novel, Green Grass, Running Water, postcolonial work has borne truly remarkable, heartbreaking, mind-altering fruit.”

The principal argument of the sentence, that postcolonial texts are at once noteworthy, emotionally evocative, and can change their reader’s mind, is clumsily hidden behind a fruit analogy. The postcolonial text bears fruit which has these qualities, and King’s novel is just one example of that fecundity.

The grammar of such a sentence—already stretched by the analogy—staggers under the extra burden of tinkering with key words. The simple sentence is easier to modify and is much more tolerant of mistakes, but the complex utterance, with its witty attempt at metaphorical language, is stubbornly resistant.

My student made seemingly innocent changes to the words, but the sentence they produced by that method became comically incoherent, especially when they struggled to both mimic the analogy and obscure that they had taken it from an online source: “At other times, like King’s epoch-making novel Greengrass, Running Water work after the colonial era brings a truly remarkable, mind-burning, fruit-changing mind.”

The original “other times” has seemingly taken on an extra time dimension, as now post-colonial work is only remarkable “at other times” and most certainly not at this time. Even the simple conversion of “as in” to “like” means that King’s novel—especially with the missing comma after the title—does not exhibit the tendencies of the postcolonial text, but rather becomes an adjective for work from a posterior colonial period that is similar to something.

My student also changed “groundbreaking” to “epoch-making,” likely because a synonym generator told them the words were equivalent, but now King’s novel has become much more profound. It does not merely lay the foundation for a tradition—in the sense of breaking ground for an enduring structure—but now it has transformed an entire epoch. They have used the same strategy on the theory term “postcolonial,” but now they have changed a theoretical definition widely used in cultural studies to examine the effects of exploitation to something that merely happens after colonization. King’s novel is now lumped in with anything that was produced after the “colonial era,” if that even means anything in the thoroughly colonized Canada of the present day. The term which lent meaning to the novel, now merely defines its publication date.

Perhaps because they didn’t understand the use of the word “borne” and how it contributes to the original analogy, they changed that to “brings.” Even if that were the only change made to the sentence, it would still destroy the analogy, as the novel would then be responsible for the delivery of fruit rather than its generation.

Wisely, in terms of meaning, if not in terms of detection, they retained “truly remarkable” although they could easily have changed those terms without upsetting the meaning of the sentence as a whole. “Truly” might easily become “actually” or “correctly” (at least that’s what my word processor spit out), and “remarkable” could have become “outstanding” or “significant.” Once this is spliced into the original sentence, the meaning changes little: “Other times, as in King’s groundbreaking novel, Green Grass, Running Water, postcolonial work has borne actually outstanding, heartbreaking, mind-altering fruit” or “Other times, as in King’s groundbreaking novel, Green Grass, Running Water, postcolonial work has borne correctly significant, heartbreaking, mind-altering fruit.” It is not a great sentence, but it would only annoy those who are trained to watch for diction errors.

Oddly, those two words remain intact in the sentence, and instead my student chose to change “heartbreaking” to “mind-burning” and “mind-altering fruit” to “fruit-changing mind.” The sentence takes on a terrible splendor as a result of these arbitrary changes. A “heartbreaking” moment could certainly be described as “mind-burning,” but it would certainly give the listener pause. The notion of sorrow and empathy are gone, and all that is left is a devastating physical effect on the brain. The emotional content has been sacrificed in order to prioritize the intellectual destruction, and any notion of empathy has been lost in the general mental conflagration.

As the reader has already come to realize, I am slowly moving toward the most daring change the student made. The “mind-altering fruit” has been—perhaps arbitrarily—changed to “fruit-changing mind.” Throwing caution to the winds, the student has switched the noun “fruit” to make it part of a compound adjective, and taken the “mind” portion of the compound adjective and made it the noun. This radical change no doubt felt like a risk to the student, but they likely had no idea what abortive monstrosity they had created. Rising Caliban-like from the stilted prose of the original, King’s novel has created a mind which can change fruit. The mind that has become the sentence’s focus, even as it “burns” in a “remarkable” and self-referential fashion, has taken on a superpower that many a culinary expert would wish to possess. The mind that can change fruit, presumably from one fruit to another—the sentence is recalcitrant on the exact nature of the gift—but very possibly into anything. This prophetic shift, as I imply above, has also distorted the earlier changed compound adjective. The adjectives were stacked up dangerously in the original, but now they are positively perilous. The mind that the sentence is most concerned with not only burns itself, or possibly other minds, but it does so at the same time that it is engaging in “fruit-changing.” The mind has gone from being altered, in the original sentence, to distorting the sentence far beyond its original weave.

The resultant sentence plods along rather complacently from its humble beginnings in a plagiarized online Amazon review, but without informing the reader their mind is about to be burned and fruit-changed, it makes a sudden, dimension-ignoring lateral shift. At some moment the sentence does not deign to discuss, work posterior to the colonial era—defined by a long string of adjectives part of which are the title of King’s novel—have brought a quite remarkable mind which both can burn itself and change the nature of fruit.

Although this sounds like a warning against plagiarism, regardless of the student’s skill level or understanding of the plagiarized document, I think the inadvertent collision of words that likely have never been lumbered together have much more to say. I did a quick google search for the frequency of the string, “fruit-changing mind,” only to find that out of the “30 trillion unique individual pages” that exist at this historical moment, one website contained the words forced into each other’s company in that exact order. Even that sentence didn’t have the temerity to construct that sentence without a comma to lessen its impact: “change posture life passion fruit, changing mind” (https://flymetothemoon.blog/mammoth_book_dieselpunk.pdf).

In the artificial courage of scholarly desperation, my student has created something that has never existed before, and although some might say that their time was better spent learning how to write instead of modifying the words of another, the end result is both horrifyingly evocative and a clank of a metal tin into a trash can. They have ignored the rules of the language and created a misbegotten monster which will not survive the birth canal, but they have also stumbled into the morass which is language use. By remaining ignorant of their tools, and by using a thesaurus function like they would a framing hammer, they have spiked their own hand to the bench. They have also, unwittingly, inadvertently, forced their reader to slow down and ponder what can be done when deceit and indolence turn their hand to expression. Much the same way poets force their readers to ponder the slipperiness of the intended meaning, the birth-slime wriggling of the signifier, my student has troubled the very relationship between signifier and signified. Although they have, perhaps inadvertently, earned themselves a failing grade, they have also the distinction of constructing a three-word string that has never before existed.

Original Sentence:

Other times, as in King’s groundbreaking novel, Green Grass, Running Water, postcolonial work has borne truly remarkable, heartbreaking, mind-altering fruit.”

 

Modified by my plagiarizing student:

At other times, like King’s epoch-making novel Greengrass, Running Water work after the colonial era brings a truly remarkable, mind-burning, fruit-changing mind.”

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Hatred of Muslims and the Latest Red Scare

I had the pleasure of growing up in North America when the reigning hatred was of communists, although most people didn’t know what a communist was and—because of weak historical understanding—only vaguely associated them with the Soviet Union. Because I am of that age, I was present when the contemporary hatred first began to surface.

At the risk of sounding like Michael Moore, when I was young North America was a very different place. The cold war was winding down with Mikhail Gorbachev and the fall of the Berlin wall, the military industrial complex was facing cutbacks with austerity measures under Reagan and belt-tightening under the Bush presidents, and the system desperately needed a new—and they hoped amorphous—enemy. If we faced an enemy like Vietnam again, then we could easily either destroy them or lose another war, but with an enemy like a faceless terrorist, both within and without, the war could continue as long as the factories making arms were open for business.

Before the World Trade Center bombing, however, there were signs that a new enemy was on the policy horizon. In the year preceding the bombing, Newsweek magazine, as well as other news/opinion sources, began to carry stories about China as a military threat. I followed these avidly, and since I was living in the United States at the time, I asked the students in my critical thinking class what country the media was encouraging the public to think about as an enemy. Not surprisingly, they had seen the same trends, so they said China.

A few months later, after the World Trade Center bombing, I happened to mention the conversation to them again, but to my shock, no one remembered what country we had been discussing, although many of them were of the opinion that it must have been Afghanistan. Somehow they had been taught who to hate and fear despite their earlier suppositions, and then had forgotten that they had always been at war against Eurasia, to quote Orwell’s prophetic 1984: “Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. . . . Officially the change of partners had never happened.  Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.  The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”

On the day of the World Trade Center bombing, I was eating breakfast and watching the events unfold with my friend’s wife. We both saw the second plane hit and actually knew what happened before the newscaster on the ground, since he had his back to the buildings and the camera was pointed toward them. America ground to a halt as people tried to digest what had happened. We knew that we had regularly bombed other countries, and killed many more civilians in the process, but many were flabbergasted that it could happen on their soil.

That afternoon I had two questions for my friends as we watched the footage. I wanted to know what was going to happen to media image of China, since until that moment it had been a military threat, and I wanted to know how long before the media reported they knew who had done the bombing. Almost immediately, China was on the list of the country’s allies, so that answered that question.

Despite my estimate that an enemy would be presented within three hours, my friend ventured that it would be immediate. He was correct. Long before anything was known about what had happened or who was responsible, the news sources began to show pictures of Osama bin Laden and suggesting that he might have been responsible. “Might” changed to “very likely” to certain, and within an hour he was the one who had committed the bombing, and by the next day the country was up in arms. Note that all this happened on the basis of suspicion since there was no time to gather evidence. When bin Laden was clearly responsible, no one knew yet who was on the planes and no one had taken responsibility for the attack. That did not slow down the snap judgements required by the moment, however, and, as any who lived during that time can attest, people were terrified and not thinking clearly.

That moment was a watershed for the new hatred of Muslims. Before that moment, and the various wars or incursions into the Middle East—even if we consider the Persian Gulf War and Iraq conflicts—the media had never presented the wars as based on a religious disagreement. After the World Trade Center bombing, however, the new enemy became terrorism, and that was general enough that it required a face. When communism was a threat it could wear any face, and that fact was a large part of the propaganda. But the face of terrorism became Muslim. The little known and largely ignored minority living in the United States became targets, and as the war machine heaved itself to its feet and began to swallow the country’s GDP, Muslims all over the world became the enemy of choice.

Suddenly the US-installed Taliban who had been gifted with arms and cash in the eighties so that they could hold back the Russians became an enemy. My friend always says that one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes of the US is their tendency to make allies of dangerous people, arm them with the latest weaponry and give them lots of money to do their dirty work, and then make them into well-armed implacable enemies by betraying them. Think back to Reagan’s selling arms to the Iran–Contras in order to illegally fund the right-wing terrorist Contra groups in Nicaragua. Osama bin Laden became another one of those frenemies, for the US funded him in Afghanistan and then turned their back once the Russians lost interest in the operation.

After the World Trade Center bombing, the media took up the torch and waved it about frantically as they rationalized the war in Afghanistan and then later Iraq. Bin Laden became the face of terror, and for many Americans—who had given no thought to Muslims in their life and could not point to the Middle East on a map—he was the terrifying face of this new religion. They didn’t know that Arab scholars were responsible for their sanitation systems, the invention of the glider, their numbering systems and algebra—likely they thought the term Arabic numbers was a coincidence—but the Quran soon became the best-selling book in the United States as they struggled to find out why Muslims wanted to kill them.

Unfortunately, they went about that search in the wrong way, for that is like reading the bible to find out why an anti-abortion protestor would bomb a clinic. The terrorist actions are not connected to religious values, but with the media stoking the fires of hatred, Sikhs were attacked—by Americans confusing turbans with Islam—and a vicious force of anti-Muslim hatred swept the country.

The war in Afghanistan was painted with the same religious brush, as President W. Bush made unfortunate reference to crusades when talking about the invasion, and the media began to talk about the position of women under the Taliban’s sharia law. No one cared about the women when the mujahideen were being funded in the eighties, but suddenly the women not being able to drive or choose their husband or take a part in government became a problem worthy of war. The same or worse policies under Saudi Arabian rule wasn’t deemed to be of importance, since they were our friends, but Afghanistan, the media told us, was a nest of vipers.

Although politicians made inflammatory speeches about Muslims, like they do, the media became the one to fan the flames until the conflagration painted every Muslim as a terrorist and hate crime as patriotism. This continues to this day, as people of Middle Eastern descent are harassed in North America and Western Europe and mosques are denied planning commission permission to build or are bombed after construction.

Last year I was talking to the same friend who knew an enemy would be declared so quickly after the bombing, and he asked me why I support Muslims. He cited their treatment of women as an example and called me out on my hypocrisy for pretending to be pro-women’s rights and yet not harbouring a hatred of Muslims. He was difficult to converse with, but I knew what media messages he had been subject to, so I could explain a few things about why his views were problematic.

I first told him that I didn’t really know much about the Islamic world. Other than my friends who are Muslims, and my many students who subscribe to the faith but are much more interested in their phones, I don’t make it a priority to find out much about Islam. I find all religions silly, and although I would not prevent another from believing what they wish as long as it is harmless, I have no interest in controlling anyone’s belief system. As well, I have only been to two Muslim-majority countries—Malaysia and Indonesia—and in Indonesia I was in an area of Sumatra that was largely Christian. There I was able to observe women carrying huge loads of wood while men idly swiped at grasses on the side of the road with the machete. I doubt that religion has as much to do with men taking advantage of power over women anywhere in the world as greed and rather pathetic notions of superiority. In Malaysia, I saw no such signs as western media had told me to look for, women hidden behind veils and creeping along in the street, or being publicly beaten while other men look on approvingly. Instead, I saw a South East Asian people carrying on with their lives just like I had in Thailand and Cambodia.

More importantly, I told my friend, I found his worry about the women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia puzzling, since I doubt he could point to the countries on a map and knew nothing about them. He told me to look it up online, but I asked him why he cared. “The puzzling thing,” I said to him, “is that you never cared about Muslims before. Although now you don’t know a single Muslim, you are suddenly against that religion. Where do you suppose that vehement distaste comes from? You didn’t say anything about Muslims ten years ago. You never thought about them at all. Is it coincidental that you, and millions of others who are otherwise relatively tolerant, have lots of negative opinions about Islam?”

For me, that is the problematic part of the media’s role in this mixture of hatred people now have for Muslims in the west. In my high school class a fellow student who wasn’t notable for his intelligence said, “Every communist should be shot.” The teacher, quite responsibly, asked him what a communist was, and he replied, “I don’t know. But they should be shot.” He had merely been subject to an older propaganda attempt, and now that the target has swung away from communism and moved on to terrorism and been given a Middle Eastern face, the racist machine of culture has rumbled to life. I am sure that if I asked him now, he would have quite firm opinions about another group of people he knows nothing about.

Millions of people in North America who never paused to think anything about Muslims suddenly are full of vociferous beliefs. They know what Muslims think, what they want, and most crucially, are afraid of them. They are afraid enough that they are willing to sign on to any government policy, start any war, and treat any of their neighbours like garbage. Without the media machine this would never have happened, so now when the media reports community concerns that mosques are being attacked by far right groups, I can’t help but see them as culpable. The ideas that are the definition of the far right arise as a result of propaganda like we have seen leveled against Muslims. These are not groups which have always existed just out of sight. They are individuals driven by hatreds that have been encouraged, and every time the media suggests that the white domestic mass killer is possibly mad and the believer in Islam is a terrorist, they add fuel to that particular racist fire.

I lived though the waning days of the red scare, when people had largely gotten over the propaganda about the Soviet Union and were prepared to live their lives more normally. The rabid mobs that attacked those they thought were communists in the streets had disappeared, just like the Klan was largely confined to a few embittered outcroppings. Now that the racists have a new out-group to focus on, they have dusted off their sheets and hoods and encouraged others who would never have thought anything about Muslims without the constant barrage from the media and they are now causing havoc in a society that could easily be peaceful and prosperous.

This is useful for governments which would like to have less scrutiny, as well as for the military industrial complex which feeds off wars, but it is ultimately destructive for those short-sighted goals as well. Hatreds tend to breed hatreds, and now that we have people shooting up mosques and hitting women wearing head scarves in the street, it is only a matter of time before those mobs come for other groups.

When that inevitably happens, the media will lament that they have no idea how such hatred arises, but they will be there to stoke the flames for the next out-group and grow their brand even while they reduce the possibility that they will have a future. The world they are leading us toward is not one which will allow the media to tell any story they wish, and they might easily find themselves out of a job, although if they are not willing to be responsible to the society they serve perhaps they have outlived their usefulness anyway.

In their place, we might have peer-to-peer information sharing instead. If we bemoan the condition of our fellow citizen’s understanding of others, it’s worth remembering that a seven-year-old girl tweeting about the bombing in Aleppo, Syria did more to bring the story of that war to the west than any of the weak handwringing of the various media sources. Trapped while the bombs fell, she tweeted, “I just want to live without fear”, “I miss school so much”, and “I am very afraid I will die tonight.”

In the future we may have to pick though the minefields of hatreds that our mass media have made of our information sources and choose those which lay claim to messages beyond the old “I hate communists” lines of my fifteen year old classmate. I look forward to when Muslims become either our friends or unknown, but I am not that excited about the new enemy such a polarized system seems to require. When the tiller is turned, I would caution all of us to watch those around us and see how they shift with the wind coming from a new direction and proudly proclaim “Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.”

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Please Leave a Message

In the early nineties answering machines on phones were ubiquitous, which means that nearly everyone had left a message on one and therefore knew what to do upon hearing the greeting. For some reason, that didn’t stop people from leaving instructions on their machine telling people how to leave a message. Who they imagined would be calling them who wouldn’t know what to do once they received a message is hard to say. I don’t think that was the problem, however. I think instead they were caught between two questions: “What message do I leave if it is not the standard set of instructions,” and “How do I tell people they have reached a machine?”

This conundrum arose when my roommate and I tried to set up a new answering machine. I initially had the message say, “This is a machine,” since that is all the information I felt the caller needed. My roommate felt that was too rude so he changed that to “Hello, you have reached our residence. No one is available to take your call at this time so please leave a message after the beep.” Regardless of my argument that everyone knew what to do, my roommate demanded the more polite message stand. I wasn’t being purely reactionary, for I found far too many messages were overly lengthy and unnecessary. In such a case, the caller, standing in the cold at the payphone, or ringing from their car, would have to endure a message for no good reason. If a machine is answering they knew no person was either present or willing, and if they wanted to leave a message they knew perfectly well how that is done.

Once another roommate moved in, I told him what I thought when he was setting up his new answering machine. He agreed heartily, partly because he was always interested in anything that went against the status quo he’d been brought up in, and partly because what I said made sense. In his case, for he was overly verbose and redundant, even his truncated message was still longer than it needed to be: “You have reached a machine. You know what to do.” Despite my plaints that telling someone they know what to do is not useful—for if they don’t they wouldn’t learn it from the message, and if they do telling them will achieve nothing—that message stood for a number of months. He was constitutionally incapable of saying anything quickly, and also he liked to lord his perceived cleverness over other people, so the longer message was his statement to the world that he had out-thought the masses. This predilection had landed him in trouble more than once, but it seemed to be impossible to curb.

For instance, when his ex-wife and he were fighting over custody of their child, he confided in me that she was a bad risk due to her inability to control her temper. “Why don’t you record her using the answering machine,” I told him. “Record what she says and then when she freaks out you will have evidence in court.”

Whether the evidence would be admissible or not turned out to be a moot question, for he engaged her in a lengthy and artificially saccharine conversation—at least on his end—trying to bait her into a rage, and then, to cap it off, he could not resist pointing out to her that he’d recorded the entire conversation. His self-satisfied grin when he hung up the phone and pressed stop on the answering machine was infuriating. He actually thought he was being clever. he had once again proved to her that he was much smarter, and thought further ahead.

“You are such an idiot,” I told him.

“That was great. I have her freaking out on the recording.”

“But you couldn’t resist . . . you couldn’t help but show her how much cleverer you were, so you told her. You’re a moron. Now she will be recording every conversation you have with her and you will never get her to freak out again. Just because you had to show how much smarter you were.”

That self-perception of his wittiness led him to leave a much lengthier message than necessary on the machine when we lived together. He could not resist but show people he was cleverer, and to shop around his new great idea. As well, once he had an audience, he had to hold onto them, and if that made the message longer, then it was a price he was willing to pay. He went on to make speeches for a living, so mercifully he found a profession that ideally suited his penchant for verbosity and wit.

When I lived alone and could control my own answering machine, its message was, “This is a machine.” Although some people complained, they knew exactly how to engage with it. The message contained all they needed to know, and instead of wondering if they have found a dead phone, or a non-functioning machine, they could be assured that they could leave their message and I would receive it. A few years later, I changed the message on my newer machine to, “Si tu no estas aqui.” That line from one of my favourite Spanish songs means, “If you are not here . . ..”  The hanging ellipsis means the caller knows what to do, and the line in Spanish, even if they don’t understand it, will indicate they have reached a machine. If they were uncertain the voice was mine, they shortly learned that it was, and before long they became accustomed to it.

Answering machines are largely automatic now, and many of the messages are not modifiable. Oddly, they have institutionalized the lengthy message I tried to avoid years ago and even to this day an answering machine tells the caller to leave a message after the beep, despite it being some forty years since answering machines were invented and everyone knows exactly what to do.

Interestingly, this same redundant information has found its way to YouTube and similar video sharing sites. At some point in a large percentage of online videos someone appears to tell the viewer that they should Press Like and Subscribe if they liked the video. Once again, this information is entirely unnecessary. Anyone who is that new to the internet that they are not already aware of this option will likely never be able to find the video again despite subscribing—if they can even figure out how to do that—and all others know what to do if they wish. The request achieves nothing, but again, the content creators are caught like my old roommate. They want to say something of the matter to their audience, but don’t know what message to leave. They could merely say, “This is a video online” but I think that would feel redundant even to those who most eagerly want to insert demands to subscribe to their video.

Curiously, even as the format of our digital interactions changes, the inflexible quality in the equation is the human creator of the message and their notion of the receiver. Perhaps that explains why such redundant information is so resistant to change that we still have not excised it from our answering machines or YouTube videos.

The latest venue I have found this type of messaging appearing is Facebook Marketplace. I wasn’t aware, until I was posting something for sale, that when people click a button saying they are interested, Facebook sends a pointless message to the seller. The message, rather infuriatingly asks, “Is this item still available?” Once I received a few of these I began to wonder if people were leaving postings up of items that had sold and this was a reaction to that, or if people ignored the for sale marker, or if they didn’t know what else to say. Rather like people telling others to click on a link to subscribe, or speak after the beep to leave a message, I thought the potential buyers didn’t know what else to write and therefore wrote something trite and pointless.

I was wrong. Facebook itself, mimicking our most mentally exhausting tendencies, is sending out a message that the sender does not intend, and therefore forcing some millions of people to reply, “Yes, it is still available” even while we wonder what was wrong with the world. This works for Facebook advertising, for it means that both parties spend more time online looking at ads, rather like the lengthy messages on answering machines means that long distance callers are spending their precious paid minutes listening to nonsense while they wait to leave their message, but for a system made by us, for ostensibly for our convenience, it wastes our time and energy.

A friend was over when I was working on my dissertation and he was annoyed when he used my word processor to write a letter. I had configured the autocorrect so that I could merely type two letters, such as pm, and the word processor would insert Postmodern. It was a term I used constantly, so I took the time to make an autocorrect entry. He wanted to tell his friend he would be arriving at six pm, but knew too little about the autocorrect space bar cue to put a space first and then return to his word. I explained the matter to him and although he understood, as a hopeful graduate student himself, I could tell he thought it was excessively precious. My dissertation was about historiographic metafiction, I told him, I only need to type hm.

Our time is precious, and that is why we built machines in the first place. We have only a little time on the planet, and even if we are only spending it watching YouTube videos and buying junk through Facebook Marketplace, we still should demand that our time is our own. I am not exactly conducting an efficiency war, and just because I’m a writer you can tell that I have lost all the battles before I start, but I want some of my time back, and I want to hold those accountable who are bleeding my life away for either their financial gain, or mere narcissistic pigheadedness.

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A Response to the Signs

When a sign about the exploitation of children went up in my neighbourhood, I thought little about it, partly because it didn’t look professional enough to have come from the desk of an official service. Instead, it had more in common with the type of sign that asks for a cat’s whereabouts, or informs the purchasing public of a pending yard sale.

I walked past the sign a few times before I noticed that it had been modified by someone with a marker, and that made me examine it more closely. Someone in my neighbourhood had been motivated enough in the cold of winter to subvert the sign’s request, and that caused me to think more about what they saw that I had missed that made them respond in such a definitive fashion.

My neighbourhood is not famous for its trust of either the police service or social services, so at first I imagined that a common kneejerk reaction inspired the modification. As I photographed the sign, and then thought about the grammatical implications of their rebuttal, however, I began to see a more profound story I’d become oblivious to behind the posters on the telephone poles on my daily walk.

The sign reads: “If you see a child or young girl being exploited, please report it, don’t regret it. 204-986-3464.” It appears to be amateurish partly because it doesn’t feature a fancy font or a graphic—such as a clip art representation of reporting or the police. Instead, its appeal is formatted simply in a large Arial font; it looks as bland as though it had been put together by a group of indifferent high school students in a class. It looked as though their teacher had demanded that they do something to raise awareness about a topic they didn’t feel affected their lives.

Part of this assessment has to do with the rather suspect grammar. The sign worries about the treatment of “a child or young girl” without being aware that the girl might fit under the category of child; as well, the sentence keeps going long after a full stop is called for. The attempt to divide the “young girl” from being “a child” is possibly significant. Although the implications of that choice are no doubt manifold, the reasoning is somewhat obscure. Does that mean the sign maker is more interested in the young girl’s exploitation? If so, why is the child mentioned at all? Do they believe a girl is more subject to exploitation than the other, presumably male children? If so, why mention the other children at all? Also, why would the sign mention the child first, if they were prioritizing the girl, instead of merely reversing them on the sign to more accurately represent their interest and concerns?

Although it is a minor grammatical point, they also wrote “a child or young girl,” which implies they are concerned about the “young girl” aspect of the child. They could have written “a child or a young girl” which would further separate them in their worries, and further divide the children along gender lines. Perhaps this is trying to put too fine a point on it, and the utterance merely represents a grammatical oversight, for the concerns with the sentence are more profound than that possible slip.

The “don’t regret it” portion of the sentence seems to be tacked on the end of the entire sentence, rather than performing a crucial function. The sign maker should have, for emphasis as well as grammar, separated the last portion of their run-on sentence (as your pedantic teacher in school would call it) with a full stop and made their appeal more emphatic, but instead they chose to tack the “don’t regret it” onto a sentence already burdened by the uneasy separation between girls and other children.

What the writers lost in emphasis they gained in a kind of dissonant poetic alliteration. The final consonance of “report it” and “regret it” appeals to the ear, but in terms of the delivered message they scarcely fit together. One is an imperative request while the other is an appeal to conscience. As well, although they sound similar they are strikingly different actions, but perhaps that is the point. Perhaps we are meant to compare the reporting with the regretting, in some kind of reverse fashion which would imply that regretting would follow directly on the heels of the lack of reporting. A semicolon might have been of greater use, for then the reader would be informed of the connection between reporting and regretting, still retain the alliteration, and not be disconcerted by the sledgehammer emphasis of two imperative appeals coming so quickly after the other.

I looked up the phone number to make sure it was a real reporting line and not merely a scam of some sort, although now that I say that I’m not sure how such a scam would work. The phone number is a dedicated tip line for the Winnipeg police department and although it does not expressly deal with exploited children, it certainly manages those reports as well as a dozen other topics.

The last portion of the sign, in terms of how it is presented to the passerby, became—after a few weeks—the rejoinder of one of my neighbours. They declare—in quite decent handwriting given the medium of a sign on a post—that “THIS IS A LIE.” I cannot tell if the capitalization is deliberate and meant to supplement the message or whether it is merely an artifact of how this person writes, but any of their readers are certainly more than accustomed to similarly declarative messages online. When someone in the nearly ubiquitous comment section of a social media source wants to be heard above the noise, they shout THEIR OPINION by using capitals. The person who editorialized on the sign might not have meant to evoke volume and rudeness, but their use of the same coding implies that they were going for that effect. Their choice of black might well be ascribed to the chance marker in their pocket, but to their credit, the colour they chose—or had chosen for them by chance—matches both the font on the sign, the import of their declaration, and the nicely-curved letters they were able to make despite standing in the cold and writing two metres in the air on a telephone pole.

Although most of their statement is written below the main part of the sign, largely on the blank space thoughtfully provided, it also overlaps the telephone number slightly. That may not be deliberate, for room for their statement is limited and, since they started a bit too far to the right, they were cramped for space once they reached the word lie. Since they didn’t cover the phone number entirely, or even consistently, I think we are asked to read this as accidental rather than a comment on the document as a whole or a wish to tinker with the ability of another to discern the number. The positioning of their writing—even if it is not deliberate—works to rather effectively emphasize the word lie. The word LIE sits alone surrounded by blank white space, and this has the effect of drawing the eye to the final word of their editorializing rather than the supporting prose of the rest of their sentence.

Merely because they wrote a response to a pre-existing and mass-produced sign, the graffiti becomes a richer document than the sign was without it. The original sign is responding to a perceived social problem, but the commentator is responding to both that perception, which they cast doubt upon, and the sign maker’s attempt at ameliorating the situation. They seemingly have taken the time to debate the merit of the choice the sign calls for, as well as represented something of their individual understanding of the situation. There is more of a personality performed by the quality of the handwriting, and the circumstances of its production, and that combines with the original intent of the sign to make their declaration rhetorically much richer than the original, rather poorly-formed request.

Perhaps because of this other rhetorical concerns, the content of the message, “This is a lie” is more difficult to parse. The “This” is used as a pronoun here and meant to refer to, presumably, a statement the sign has made. What portion of the sign it is referring to is not as easily decided, however. The commentator has made the determination that something on the sign is a lie; but part of the difficulty in identifying the pronoun’s antecedent is that the sign does not make a statement of fact.

If the sign were to state that “The sun and moon are the same size,” or any other statement of fact, then someone could quite legitimately suggest that the sign was perpetuating a lie. They would no doubt be able to point to measurements made by the astronomical field which would support their assertion, and despite not being privy to such information the sign’s readers might be happy enough with the rebuttal. Even if the sign were to venture a more controversial opinion, “Walnuts are better for your health than beans,” few would find a reason to dispute the information, despite feeling differently or wishing to question the basis of the assertion. Better in what way, they might demand, given that each offer different types of essential amino acids. Someone walking by such a sign—one that disputes either scientific verities or dietary matters best discussed with a nutritionist—would not pause at a claim about its untruth, partly due to the minus twenty degrees weather but also because we recognize grammatically that for something to be declared a lie it needs to be a statement to begin with.

The sign in question is not even asking a question, which would be problematic enough in determining how someone would respond with a statement about lying. If it were to ask, “Is the sky blue?” declaring it to be a falsehood would be equally problematic. Much more significantly, the sign rather mildly asks—and its use of the simple present conditional tense makes this even more clear—that if the reader becomes aware of such an event they should report it. The imperative that the reader report is even softened with a polite “please,” so it is likely not the information itself that the reader is responding to.

As the conditional clause makes clear, the reader is not being accused of under-reporting in the past; instead, they are cordially requested to keep their eyes open and consider contacting the relevant authorities if they suspect something untoward is happening to a child. Surely such a request does not even go far enough, and we might justly be annoyed with the sign’s authors that they weren’t more vehement over the question of child abuse. In any event, the sign as it stands should not be so virulent as to inspire such rancour, even if it were possible for it to be untrue.

Because the request is phrased as a conditional and therefore exists in a nebulous world of possibility, there is no statement that can be false. That is the reader’s first hint that the graffiti is responding to the sign’s implications, although those are difficult to discern. Perhaps the most obvious possibility the editorializing is responding to whether children are in fact exploited, but for them to hold that opinion they must either completely ignore nearly weekly news reports, or at least disbelieve their claims that child exploitation is a widespread concern. Even if they believe that such low numbers of children are being exploited that the sign is unnecessary, it’s difficult to fathom the mentality who would take it upon themselves to modify the sign in order to make a claim that there are not enough children harmed to be worth the paper or the time for someone to print the sign and staple it to a post. Most people, even if they were of that opinion, would still see the sign positively; they would likely think that anything that protects children is a good outcome for society, despite the time and effort taken to make a sign. Someone who wanted to exploit children would doubtlessly view the situation differently, but they would be unlikely to advertise their intentions by walking around the city defacing signs about their behaviour.

Perhaps the graffiti is in response to the suggestion that the person who does not report would later experience regret. It seems doubtful that anyone would feel so strongly about such a nebulous guess about their emotions in a given situation, however. The motivations of such a person are hard to imagine. They would be so outraged by the suggestion that they would be upset if a child was exploited when they could have prevented it, that they would take to the sign with a marker and quite soberly—for the letters do not look like they were formed in anger—declare the conjecture to be faulty.

These guesses do not seem to close with the actual reason someone would feel compelled to stand in the snow and state their opinion over a sign that pleads with them to perform what most would see as their social duty. Perhaps seeking for the lie does not work when focusing on the instances of abuse, and the possible feelings of regret, but rather there is a larger societal context which informs why someone in my neighbourhood went into the cold with a marker to correct what they saw as a wrong.

Perhaps they accept that exploitation is happening in the city, and perhaps even in their neighbourhood, but they reject that the proposal that they call the number is a good idea. For this to be true, we have to consider the relationship between the police and most of the people in my neighbourhood. Although the police are called when an emergency arises—just as they would be in other areas of the city—adding children to the mix complicates the police presence profoundly. Those same police are present when a child is taken by child and family services.

The relationship between child and family services and parents in Winnipeg has long been a combative one. Its origin likely pre-dates the Indian Act of 1876, which both stripped Indigenous people of their rights as well as confined them to reserves under the control of a patronizing system of governmental oversight. Before that they were enemy combatants in a war for land. When European invaders found two huge continents ripe for theft, they viewed the Indigenous people living on the land as an annoyance to be brushed aside. The history of continuous genocidal policies persist to the present day despite beginning with the invasion, theft of their lands and then broad-scale murder, until the Indian Act forced the Indigenous people to be subjects of the invading culture. The efforts to destroy the cultures of the locals by enacting colonial practices on their children began with the Residential School program. That in turn led to the grim legacy of the Sixties Scoop in which Indigenous children were taken from their parents and given—or in some cases sold—to white families in Canada and abroad.

The tendency of child and family services to error on the side of caution if the family is Indigenous is seen by many informed by such past practices. The hospital staff take it upon themselves to inform social services if an Indigenous mother is giving birth, and that inspires an investigative service to spring into action. If the mother and surrounding family—it’s worth recalling that Indigenous events typically involve huge extended families—is not considered to be fit to rear their child—a determination made largely based on colonial and class-oriented notions of propriety and property—then the child is removed. This is a significant enough problem that a child a day is taken from his or her mother’s arms in Manitoba hospitals. This unsettling reality is even more disturbing when we consider that it is supported by the same system using forced sterilization—without their knowledge and consent—of Indigenous women to ensure the colonial project endures. The well-documented historical cases are now supported by more recent allegations which have surfaced in the last year and which inform recent court cases.

Although a cursory reading of the nearly voiceless person who modified the sign merely shows them to be indifferent about the safety of children, a more careful review of the local history, the implications of different aspects of the sign, and whose children are being reported and then lost if the no-regret warning is heeded, brings the graffiti writer’s possible motivations to life.

Whoever stood in the snow in minus temperatures felt strongly enough about the issue to risk being seen writing on a sign posted by a police representative. They were firm enough in their determination that the sign presents at least one mistruth that they reached above their head to make a counter declaration. This is not idle graffiti. This is a possibly vain attempt to correct a problem which is nearly ubiquitous in the culture and which hides its history behind an appeal to help a child. The sign even makes its seemingly innocuous request with the word please, but people of Indigenous descent in Canada hear a different request and have historical reasons to fear what they may regret.

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The High Today is Minus 8

The weather in Winnipeg is normally quite stable. We typically have four days of sun followed by four days of cloud. Of course, locally, Winnipeggers respond to their climatic conditions like any others. They complain that the day is hot, cold, or too temperate, even while they make claims about the wild swings of temperature or mood. “If you don’t like the weather,” they say, “wait fifteen minutes.”

This is not really true, and they have borrowed the phrase and the sentiment from places in Canada where the weather is truly constantly shifting, such as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, or coastal British Columbia. Because there are few influences on the weather in Winnipeg, and on southern Manitoba in general, the people here are rarely surprised by freak storms, by forecasting that is wildly at variance to what they see outside, or—even given a trend toward warmer winters in the last twenty years—temperature shifts.

CBC radio has grown wise to the tendency of forecasting that looks ahead too much to be inaccurate, so they now limit their foretelling to one to two days. This morning I heard a forecast that should have been exactly like all the others from a winter morning, some small amount of snow, minus figures, and the continuation of that into the future. As usual, the anchor-person announced the current temperature as minus six degrees and followed that with the day’s high temperature: minus eight.

This stood out, and for the first time I wondered what they actually meant by peak temperature. I had always presumed that it referred to the highest temperature during the day, much like peak meters on a stereo will show the highest levels the song rises to. I now wonder if they are using peak instead to refer to a particular time of the day. Perhaps they take the time normally associated with higher temperatures, such as noon, and then call that the peak and whatever temperature they guess it will be at that time is the day’s peak temperature.

To do this, they have to modify our generally accepted notion of peak and highest. I could be wrong, however, and they are instead referring to the peak of the day and giving the temperature then. Either way, it is much warmer in the morning than it will be later in the day, and the radio has told me that by claiming—if we take them at their words—that minus eight is warmer than minus six.

That is the other way we survive the Winnipeg winter. We tell ourselves that winter will end earlier than it will, we lie about how the cold doesn’t parch our bones even while we shiver next to a bus stop, and we wear shorts as soon as the temperature approaches zero. In Winnipeg we survive by telling lies about our terrible situation, not just about how our weather is unpredictable, or that the winter is more manageable than it is, that summer is too hot when in fact it is temperate, but we have begun to lie about what the words mean.

Caught in the desperate fact of our winter existence, we lie about which temperature is colder, and what the word peak might mean. While the rest of the world looks on in amazement while we throw boiling water into the air and it sublimes into vapour, we have also begun to tinker with the building blocks of communication itself.

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Colleen and the Church Lady

Church Lady: “So lovely to see you here today, girl. On Christmas Mass at least. You haven’t attended in months.” Looks significantly at Colleen’s mother.

Mother: “She has school and lots of work.”

Colleen: “Nice to see you too. It’s been a pretty busy term.” She is still playing nice because Church Lady’s first salvo was merely a glancing blow.

Church Lady: “Your mother said you were too busy for mass. School and work?” Her tone is doubtful, as if she were examining her son’s browser history.

Colleen: “Yeah.” Sensing the undertone of judgement, Colleen jabs a little. “And where is Daniel?” Damn her. Her son never comes to church, so who is she to act so high and mighty?

Church Lady: A moment’s confusion—a direct hit. “Daniel just bought a house. He goes to the church closest to his new place. West Waverly.”

 

Clever maneuvering. Colleen knows Daniel is off church but Church Lady has neatly avoided the direct blow and struck a few of her own. She has pointed out that Colleen still lives at home, that her son—who is a year younger—has moved out, and that he lives in a rich neighbourhood and so has done better than Colleen’s family. Church Lady can’t resist preening.

 

Mother: Trying to deflect. “She was happy to come today.”

Colleen: “Oh, so Daniel goes to a different church?” Colleen is not willing to let Church Lady squirm out of the lie that easily.

Mother: “Just like Anh.” Everyone knows that Anh is done with church but no one will say anything outright, and Mother is not above riding the coattails of Church Lady’s excuse for her son.

 

A moment’s silence while they reflect on the various lies going around the church entrance. The smell of lies and blood attract some of the other church ladies.

 

Colleen: “That must be what I am doing too, then. Going to a church closer to something. In for a penny in for a pound, Colleen raises her voice for the old biddies who have chosen to stop and listen in case some good gossip comes up. “That’s probably what everyone’s children are doing. I bet the churches are full, everywhere else but here at least.”

 

The old biddies shuffle away, hiding their own families from the onslaught. Church Lady is outraged that Colleen has called her bluff. She thinks for a moment.

 

Church Lady: “Well I hope you take the time to attend in the future, dear. The children miss you.”

 

She’s good. So Colleen has been ignoring the children she has been helping in a volunteer position she’s held for years. That’s how it’s going to be is it?

 

Mother: “Colleen misses them so much. Father Jefferies said as much when we arrived.” Mother knows Colleen feels bad for the kids, so she can’t resist but tighten the screws; she wants Colleen to attend and Church Lady has afforded her the perfect opportunity.

Colleen: They’ve pushed too far now; time for the big guns. “I look forward to Daniel’s marriage. I haven’t met his girlfriend yet. Is the wedding going to be at the church near their house too, or here?”

Church Lady reels as though she has been hit with a bible. No one ever mentions the offspring living in sin, not within the church entrance where god can hear. And now it has been said aloud in front of her peers, who despite their inexpensive coats, still hold sway over the congregation.

“I better let you go. I’m sure you have to do some Sunday cleaning.” A statement about class is the best she can manage before she squeezes past them and flounces out the door.

Mother: “You didn’t have to bring that up.” Although she speaks in Vietnamese the other biddies know Colleen is being scolded and they wish public burnings were still a possibility like in the old country.

The conversation degenerates into angry looks and empty platitudes with the biddies as Colleen and her Mother leave the church, one of them triumphant and the other mortified.

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Christmas Alligator Story: A Story from my Tom Waits’ Project

There were swamps and marshes along the coast where the weed-filled days of people in the Louisiana muck combined with the Texan urge to howl and wail at the empty sky. On the border between the bog and the pine knoll, fourteen men watched an alligator in the mud. Some of them were grinning, and others were hefting a gun, and the sun was glistening in the sparkles like diamonds of rain the Spanish moss. A prehistoric bird was crying out its soul in the swamp, and frogs peered over hillocks of mud and grass. It could have been a lynching or a hanging or some vigilante meeting, where plaid shirts and knee-high boots had been called upon by the weather to stomp under the trees.

The alligator struggled, it was bigger than anyone had ever seen, and of the men who didn’t have a Dutch-courage gun, their skin was white with fear. It could have burst through the wall while I was sleeping, it could have gone for the kids. I might have been bending over to pick a flower for the wife while it sawed my day in half. If it got amongst the chickens, or had hatched in an upstairs bed, then it could have eaten my family for breakfast and the preacher for dessert. We need traps and controls, we need a way to keep safe from the storms; I hear the levies are breaking and letting these monsters in. I locked the closet before I went to sleep, I propped a gun by the bed, and if the kids wanted water in the night I fed them liquor instead.

If they were watching from the sky, they would have seen a tiny group, like ants on a log pushing for the path, they were miniscule men in a vast swamp. In their minds the mud was roiling with all the ways they could die, whether animal or vegetable or a triggered bullet from a gun. They would never find the body; they wouldn’t know where to look, and there would be no one to care enough to ask the tough questions about where the body had been sunk. I’m a speck, I’m a tadpole, and the world’s violence can’t be controlled; there are monsters here and there that make me cling to a gun in fear.

Sometimes they could hear the train running for the station, from the raised track above the trees, and they imagined that it was running for them, or running away from malarial forest; it was smashing flat the settled order or predator and prey, and because it was there machine it might not mangle their bodies at all.

The alligator gave another gasp, and then lay like one dead. They waited and then Broom stepped forward, poked its side with a stick. They sighed with relief, and their pent-up talk came spilling out, and they turned away from the suddenly small body and laughed and joked and shouted. We are master, we are stronger, we have nothing to fear in the world, and then the alligator lurched and Broom lost his bristles in the alligator’s mouth. They screamed and shot and blasted, they felt like they were tearing the swamp apart, but the animal they were afraid of, after waiting two hundred million years to jump, had vanished below the water and four men were dead. Broom was bleeding out and scattering his gore along the bank, his body was thrashing like he was still alive, but he was missing too much above his neck. The others had been shot by their friends in their fright, and they were stone cold dead and resting as though they’d lain down for a swamp-side nap. You better wake them, you better call, and let their wives know they’re not at all well, but their intentions were worth nothing and the swamp went silent.

I better head to town, one of them said, I better get back to work, said another. Someone’s going to have to call this in, and give me your rifles to keep them safe. I’ll find a deep hole where no one fishes and no one swims, and I’ll bury the evidence with our story. It was an alligator, it was a murderer, inspired by who knows what, and they went on a killing spree and we few friends managed to get out. If someone asks you saw nothing, if they suggest you weren’t here. If they ask about your rifle, you can say that old thing isn’t around anymore.

Five of them went to their boats and pushed them along the shore until they scattered under the trees, and the remaining five walked along the dirt road that led back into the village to the town to the city along the coast. I saw nothing, I know nothing, I never even knew that guy; they straightened their story like a tablecloth over a table made from a board.

The swamp was quiet at first, and then the birds began to call. The frogs jumped from one pool to another, and flies buzzed around the blood. The alligator poked a snout from under the weeds, and then another and another, and with no fighting about what needed to be done, it pulled the bodies into the water. There was more than enough for everyone, as it poked limbs into roots below the waterline, and we’ll be feasting until Christmas, unless someone comes to find the food they left on the shore. People were cryptic and confusing, but sometimes what they did made sense, and with such a huge offering, the alligators were grateful for the chance. We should consider them on our wish list, we should offer them recompense, for they have done more than well by us, and they didn’t have to get us a thing. (This story is from the third volume of my Narrative in Tom Waits’ Songs project)

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Beware of the Fog in Winnipeg

I have heard the warnings associated with fog in Winnipeg nearly every year that I have lived in the city. Over that more than twenty year period, the normal weather is usually reported fairly accurately. The weather here in the centre of the continent is relatively stable, four days of sun followed by four days of cloud and one day of precipitation, so it’s not much of a challenge to foretell. A farmer with a weather eye to the sky could do it by watching the birds, although fog is an exception to the rule about accurate reporting.

Perhaps because Winnipeg is so far from the coast that the locals have never experienced real fog, they become hysterical when the normally crystal clarity of their skies is threatened. I have driven in fog so dense in eastern Canada that I had to navigate by the fuzzy yellow line outside the driver’s door window. I could see nothing ahead of me at all, and only a metre to one side, so I only hoped that creeping along at ten or fifteen kilometres per hour, I wouldn’t run afoul of someone driving too fast in the opposite direction.

When we have a fog day in Winnipeg, they describe the visibility in terms of distance. Today, for instance, CBC weather claimed that our visibility is reduced to less than a kilometre. Having grown up in foggy conditions where such a measurement would be made in metres, I went immediately to wondering how far into the distance was necessary for most of our daily functions. I can understand that even a light fog might affect the airport, but how could it have anything to do with driving? In many cities in the country—and this is even more true in other parts of the world—buildings and landforms prevent a view of any more than thirty or forty metres, let alone a hundred metres. What could be happening a kilometre away that would so disconcert a Winnipeg driver that they might be more prone to having an accident? Even if their stopping power were greatly reduced, a kilometre is a long time to apply poor brakes on a slippery road.

If our driving test included such measures for the prospective driver’s eyesight, they would need to reject thousands, for not everyone can see that clearly thirty metres away let alone a hundred. There simply is nothing that far away for even a speeding Winnipeg driver to run into if they are paying attention, therefore the system doesn’t concern itself with such minor vision problems. If so, they would need to pay much more attention to lighting the city at night, for certainly visibility is below a kilometre then. Imagine the weather report: “It’s getting dark out there, and night is coming. Be careful, for visibility will be reduced to—for dark objects—less than a metre.” Mercifully, the weather report is not interested in telling that particular story, which makes the discerning viewer wonder if they care about visibility or if there was something more at play than a legitimate concern about how far Winnipeg drivers can see the accident they are hurtling toward.

I think there are three reasons: unfamiliarity with fog, a failure in logic, and the urge to boost ratings or click-throughs. The anchorpeople making such proclamations have likely never experienced nearly daily heavy fog, such as we see in the coastal cities in Canada, and therefore such an instance here is unusual enough they feel a need to report on it. They are not quite sure what elements are terrifying, so they pick the only thing that fog can affect, visibility, and make that the basis of their report. Likely they have never tried to follow through on the logic of their statement, such as imagining what could happen if a driver’s visibility were suddenly lowered to less than a kilometre away. the mayhem they evoke by their warnings, are not borne out due partly to their lack of understanding of fog, and partly because even if they drove to work, they didn’t notice that such visibility is negligible unless you are flying a plane.

The last concern is one that we see nearly every week in weather reports right across the country. Perhaps this is a result of a twenty-four hour news cycle for the weather channel, but weather now has to compete with programming which is much easier to vary, such as situation comedies and reality television. The only option left for the weather channels in order to widen their readership beyond the older men who are as drawn to their proclamations as a ghoul to a tomb, is to make every storm the end of days, and use wild weather from other parts of the world to plump up the rather boring local forecast. They have branched out into video sent in by viewers of moose in the yard, earthquakes and volcanos, but generally they are circumscribed by weather-related events. If there is local flooding we can count on their coverage as well as the increasingly common “Storm of the Century” warnings. Every rain storm is a downpour, a light dusting of snow proclaimed to be a blizzard with whiteout conditions, a sunny day will burn us with ultraviolet, cold with freeze our extremities, and even a distant mist came become horror-movie terrifying.

The weather channel needs this fearmongering to keep up their viewership, and we seemingly need the frisson of fear in order to take their forecasts seriously, but it is worth wondering about their representation of fog and how little they care about our poor visibility at night. To make up for their glaring omission, I would like to proclaim, “It’s going to be dark tonight, and every other night following. Be careful out there.”

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